Through a constant bombardment of bigotry, our culture continues to shame gay men into feeling less than. These messages of intolerance and hate have many sources in our society -- government, faith communities, corporations. Sadly, only eleven states, now including Delaware, allow gay men to marry the person they love. Twenty-nine states actually allow business owners and employers to discriminate and fire an employee simply because he is gay. Places of worship are not always safe havens for gay men, either, with some faith leaders weaponizing scripture and bullying from their pulpits instead of teaching their congregants to love thy neighbor. And we all remember the Chick-fil-A spectacle last year when the iconic restaurant chain got their feathers all ruffled over the idea of gay rights.
Recently, Jason Collins, a player for the NBA, made national news just because he came out of the closet as a gay man. So what? Do you really think his dating life would have been such a big deal if Mr. Collins had announced that he is dating a white woman? Well, maybe in my native South half of a century ago it would have been a big deal -- hopefully, those days are long gone.
But those days are still here for gay men. The amount of intolerance towards gay men today is staggering, and the guys on the receiving end of all this bigotry and hate are real people with real hearts with real feelings. Is there any doubt why so many in the gay community struggle with substance abuse, depression, suicide and eating disorders?
I often wonder what role society's collective shame plays in the development of body image issues and eating disorders in gay men. All of that shame has to go somewhere, and where it usually ends up is deep in the wounded psyches of those it is intended to hurt. If someone constantly receives the message that they are not good enough, not equal to, an abomination, there can be serious psychological consequences. The numbers speak for themselves. A 2007 study found that over 15 percent of gay and bisexual men have struggled with some form of disordered eating. And I expect this number to only increase.
While struggling to build a sense of self and to survive psychologically, gay men may engage in some dangerous and possibly life-threatening behaviors (e.g., restricting food, excessive exercising, purging, using anabolic steroids) in an attempt to create what is considered the gay "ideal" physique -- a body that is both thin and muscular. This relentless pursuit to look and feel physically fit is but one way to compensate for feeling psychologically unfit. And if achieved, this "ideal" body can be egosyntonic and positively reinforced, morphing gay shame into gay pride and moving one from being a no-body to being some-body .
To have the so-called "perfect" body in the gay world gives a gay man what a rejecting society has stripped from him -- his power. A gay man with a toned, chiseled body with "six pack abs" no doubt has power, the power to command the attention, acceptance, and admiration from his gay peers. And this acceptance and admiration, albeit based on physical appearance, goes a long ways in helping heal the shame and disconnect he experiences from others in our society.
Like every other human on the planet, gay men want to feel a sense of belonging. But in a larger culture that invalidates and shames, gay men turn to their bodies to seek the significance and connection we all hunger for.